Diving on a still active volcano with hundreds of deadly poisonous sea snakes – what could possibly go wrong? Simon Marsh explains where to find the wild side of Banda Sea diving
Sea snakes at Ganung Api © Chris Mitchell
Diving The Banda Sea Part 2 – Dive Happy Episode 25 Show Notes
- Diving the Banda Sea part 1 – my previous chat with Simon about the diving the Banda Sea and blood-soaked history of the Banda Islands
- My other previous chat with Simon about what’s it like being a liveaboard cruise director
- Damai – the liveaboard boat for which Simon was cruise director – also my favourite boat
- Raja Ampat to the Banda Islands – my trip report from 2016
- Banda Islands scuba diving – my original guide to each of the main areas in the Banda Sea from 2008
- Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – recommended book if you want to know more about the history of the Banda Islands
- Banda Islands history – Wikipedia gives an excellent summary of the history of the islands and their importance within world trade
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Diving The Banda Sea Part 2 – Dive Happy Episode 25 Transcript
[0:00:34.9] CM: Hello, welcome to Dive Happy podcast. I’m your host Chris Mitchell. This is the second part of my conversation with cruise director Simon Marsh about diving the Banda Sea. If you want to listen to part one, you can find it it at Diving The Banda Sea Part 1 or you can be completely anarchic and just sail on into listening to part 2 first. I hope you enjoy it.
[0:00:33.5] CM: Beyond Banda Neira which is the main island where the main city is located, there’s the whole group of the islands. One of them is Gunung Api which is still an active volcano, right?
[0:00:46.1] SM: Yes, it is Gunung Api is probably actually only about 400 meters away from the town of Banda Neira which we’ve already kindly called the city and frankly, large town will be pushing it. Banda Neira is very much in the shadow of Gunung Api which literally means fire mountain, which is a volcano. Gunung Api actually last went off in the early 1980s. It had a lava flow and the lava was quite extensive or down the sort of north and west side of the mountain which was good for Neira because Neira is more on the southern south-east.
But it wasn’t quite bad for one village which was located on the slopes and basically the lava swept down through the village, killing a fair number of in habitants and then down into the sea and destroyed a quite a large amount of coral reef. Which obviously is really interested and people and divers would throw our hands up in horror but it’s really rather amazing the way that the area has come back and that’s one of the key dives that we always do from there is to actually dive what’s called the lava flow.
[0:01:51.7] CM: Yes, it’s [inaudible] to be tight with the lava flow. Yeah, I mean, I’ve dived there and I must admit, I am absolutely stunned because it’s basically this huge bed of stag horn coral, what I mean it is literally a carpet, it’s stag horn upon stag horn and it just shouldn’t be there should it?
[0:02:12.4] SM: Well not really because coral as we al know is quite slow growing, although the staghorns are some of the faster species, in fact, they’re all fastest species of coral growth. It’s easy to see why the stag horn of all the corals has done so well. But usually, what happens is other things like plants, algaes, other soft bodied animals settle first and steal space away from the coral. My personal hypothesis is that the lava rock itself was chemically unsuitable for plants and soft bodied creatures to settle down on but the coral seems to love it.
It’s just incredible as you say, you look down and it’s just fields of this aqua-porous stag horn coral as far as t he eye can see and it’s all grown back in the last 25 years, 25 to 30 years which is just fantastic. It makes you feel very good about the resilience of coral, given the right opportunity and the right conditions.
[0:03:12.5] CM: Yes, that was exactly the world I was about to use, resilience and I seem to also remember there’s some – as well as a stag horn, some really lovely sort of bombies of hard coral there as well which is also seems to attract quite a lot of fish life around it.
[0:03:25.5] SM: Yeah, bombies basically meaning large lumps of lava rock that roll down and also colonised. Yes, there’s some fish but when we dive here, it’s really the tag line is it’s all about the coral. Because it is remarkable.
[0:03:40.3] CM: Speaking of fish and looking for the more spectacular examples, Banda is also another opportunity to maybe spot hammerheads, right?
[0:03:48.9] SM: Correct, there’s a couple of places so the island of Run which was the one we mentioned earlier regarding the exchange with Manhattan. Run has got a point down on its southwest, it sits southwest point of the Banda Islands and it’s quite regularly you can see hammerheads coming up the reef there.
There’s another place on the south side of Banda, big Banda where you can see hammerheads in there, there’s also a sea mount just south of Hata where I personally haven’t seen but my friends tell me they’ve seen hammerheads off that sea mount as well. None of these hugely secret dive sites because we all know and we all dive them now but yeah, certainly to be seeing this many hammerheads around one island group is fantastic.
[0:04:36.0] CM: Have you had any – you yourself had any particularly memorable encounters there?
[0:04:40.6] SM: Certainly, on Run, I’ve seen hammerheads thwe many times, one dive that springs to mind, terrible visibility, raging current and then you’re finning into the current to go backwards, one of those. Just looked over my left shoulder and there’s a hammerhead pretty much doing exactly the same thing about 15 meters down the reef from me, that’s lovely, that’s always nice to see.
The more spectacular hammerheads encounters I’ve seen further south in the itinerary, we’ll get there I’m sure in just a minute but yes, the for sure, hammerheads, they’re there to be seen, they can be a little deep but it kind of depends on the factors like the water temperature and visibility and that sort of thing, as how shallow they’ll come.
[0:05:21.2] CM: Beyond lava flow and hammer heads, is there any other specific site around the Banda Islands that you’re really keen on?
[0:05:29.7] SM: Yeah, the other regular that we have is called Batu Kapal, which means literally ship rock because it looks like a ship and it’s a rock, that’s a really nice dive, it’s not the – we’re not actually around the rock itself but about 40 meters off to the west side of the rock there is actually little pinnacles as a collection of pinnacle with saddles in between them and those are just beautiful, we’ve seen the thresher sharks swimming past those.
I’ve seen the biggest Spanish Dancer I’ve ever seen in my life swimming up out of the beach, straight at my group of divers and that was one of those truly memorable moments in your life, there’s a lot of pyramid butterfly fish there, the yellow butterfly fish with the white triangle on the side, big schools of those, lots of spotted morays for some reason, I’m not sure why they’re particularly like that dive site. But yeah, that’s a big favourite, we try and do that a couple of times when we’re there. Batu Kapal, there’s Hata Arch, there’s [inaudible] which means leaning tree.
There’s a good few dive sites around the Banda. Nice place, we might stay a couple of days, l maybe three days depending on the itinerary.
[0:06:38.0] CM: Right. Did you just mention thresher sharks?
[0:06:42.8] SM: I mentioned a thresher shark once.
[0:06:46.4] CM: I was going to say, hang on a minute, I never heard about thresher sharks. Wow.
[0:06:51.7] SM: One once. But you know, they happen, it’s the Banda Sea, there’s blue whales, there’s about 10 different species of whales frequent those waters. So there’s going to be all kinds of marine fauna, it’s very deep waters so it’s kinds of fauna around that.
[0:07:07.6] CM: Yeah, you’ll say you’re basically the edge of the trench on you so anything can come up from the deep, it’s what makes it so special. Once the Banda Islands have been thoroughly explored, where would the boat typically head next?
[0:07:25.2] SM: Well, it depends on the itinerary. I mean, if we were going to be finishing in Sarong, we’d probably at that point turn and head out towards Raja Ampat but what you want me to talk about is what if we’re not going to Raja Ampat and we’re heading south down to the Kai Islands or maybe down to [inaudible] for a transition and then we usually head more or less due south and end up 90 miles later at another small, small island. Another active volcano called Pulau Manuk which means Manuk Island, bird island. Also known as island of the snakes.
[0:08:05.2] CM: Yes, Manuk is also still an active volcano as well isn’t it?
[0:08:10.0] SM: Yes, just about. I’ve never seen it erupting, it’s not a classic cone but there are sulphur vents, there is sulphur steam vents, there is bubbles coming up out the sand around the rock but it’s really not a big rock. I mean, you can drive around it in a boat. You can drive around it in half an hour. Yes, it’s not big but there’s around – you can drop in the water almost anywhere and have a good dive.
[0:08:36.4] CM: Indeed. But it’s always interesting briefing because it’s basically like, here we are at an active volcano that stinks of sulphur, now we’re going to jump in the water and living on this active volcano are lots of deadly poisonous sea snakes, off you go. Of course Everyone’s clamouring for it, they love it.
[0:08:59.1] SM: Getting the guests in the water was never the problem, it’s getting the crew in the water is the problem.
[0:09:06.0] CM: Now, these sea snakes at Manuk, they’re not the sort of cuddly black and white banded sea snakes that we see so many other places, are there?
[0:09:14.2] SM: They’re there, they exist there, they’re to species of well, let’s get our terminology absolutely right. There is one species of sea snake that we see that and there was one species obviously crate, the crate and the snake being different. What you’re talking about is banded sea crate which is not a true sea snake in that they live a good portion of their life cycle on land, they lay their eggs on land, they often go on land to sleep to digest their food, that sort of thing.The sea snake in question there is the olive sea snake. That is a true sea snake and yeah, there’s quite a lot of them that’s for sure.
[0:09:51.7] CM: When you say quite a lot, you mean hundreds?
[0:09:55.7] SM: Yes, absolutely, although, sadly the numbers have been diminishing and we often see other little fishing boats there, I believe they’re harvesting, should we call it, snakes for skins. I’d say the number of snakes have gone down in the last 10 years that I’ve been going there. That is sad but it’s an amazing place.
The active volcano element to it means that in several places, there’s hot water bubbling up through the sand and you can see sulphur things on the black sand, the yellow sand, yellowish stains on the black sand, you put your hand in there, it’s quite warm and I think that’s why there’s so many snakes, they are particularly successful at breeding there, they’ve got no natural predators there and I believe they are successful in breeding there because of the warm sand for incubation of eggs, that’s a personal theory again.
I’m sure it’s got an effect. Because it’s a similar sort of thing down at Gunung Api that we were talking about off air earlier, where it’s an active volcano and it’s got a lot of snakes. It’s very similar setup.
[0:10:55.6] CM: Yes, we should point out that this is not the same Gunung Api that’s in the Banda Islands, it’s a completely separate place that’s – where did you say it was Simon? It’s actually much further south?
[0:11:05.1] SM: Yeah, it’s much further south in the Banda Sea, it’s still Banda Sea but it’s much further south than the little more west than we would normally go on our itineraries.
[0:11:12.8] CM: Yeah, Gunung Api is essentially a generic Indonesian name for a volcano, right? Fire mountain.
[0:11:19.5] SM: Exactly, yes.
[0:11:20.5] CM: Yes, I have to say, Gunung Api was actually where I first dived if you like this kind of experience of diving a volcano with the snakes and I’m actually rather glad Simon, you weren’t with me because I have to say it the first time I went in the water, I was little.
[0:11:35.3] SM: Did you make a mess of your shorts?
[0:11:38.7] CM: I wasn’t happy to put it that way. Well, even though obviously your guide warns you, until you actually see it happen, the snakes are very curious, they’re not shy at all are they?
[0:11:48.8] SM: No, absolutely not. I mean, one hand they will often ignore you completely as is the way with snakes because you’re not really on their radar but that does seem to come a point and we found that it could be related to the time of day and later in the day that behaviour starts to change and they get a lot more interested and a lot more curious. We once had because we were already planning three dives because no night dives. We got to move onto the south so then to the next destination but you have a group that wants to do a fourth dive. So we have gotten into the water around 4:30, quarter to five for a short dive and they came out looking fairly pale.
Because what seems to happen is that the snakes have developed this symbiotic relation with larger fish and they hunt. I have seen this happen. I have seen schools, small schools of jacks swimming past with snakes within their midst. So they are doing this symbiotic behaviour where they then the whole school comes down with snakes into the reef to start hunting as we know jacks do it around 5:00 in the afternoon and the snakes are going into the rocks chasing out fish or catching some.
And the jacks are catching the fish that are being chased out. So they develop this symbiotic thing with larger fish and I think that later in the day they are coming up to us as divers because they are expecting us to have that same kind of thing with them and it is like a, “Hey, let’s go hunting.” And they swim under your arm and around your neck and then code you to do that and it is very, very freaky. Especially if you consider how poisonous these things are.
[0:13:23.8] CM: Yes because that was my point about the black and white sea crate that all divers are pretty much familiar with is that these olive sea snakes are much bigger, much longer and much fatter as well. So they look far more like bruiser snakes than more delicate crates.
[0:13:42.8] SM: Correct, although at Manuk we certainly see some big crates as well.
[0:13:46.7] CM: Right, well yeah I bet you see some either happy ground for the snakes but yes when one wraps itself around your leg or whatever it is kind of like, “Hmm.”
[0:13:57.4] SM: It is a little freaky, I have to say. So now we stop doing late afternoon dives but of course there is a good reason for doing early morning dives at Manuk as well. There is a couple of places where you are quite likely to see schooling hammerheads at Manuk.
[0:14:11.0] CM: Oh wow.
[0:14:12.0] SM: You have to get into the water early to do that.
[0:14:13.8] CM: Right will that be just waiting out in the blue and see if they go by or would you just hover around on the reef and see what happens?
[0:14:21.5] SM: A couple of times I have seen them is that both different places but same sort of thing, the ridges going out and down and yeah, they have been coming up the ridges for cleaning, by the looks of it. We certainly have seen one that others hanging out at like five meters in the current getting cleaned that is not normal but you know the schools hang off these ridges. I don’t know if maybe they are coming in for cleaning, maybe there are some reasons either. Certainly, Manuk is another good place for hammerhead encounters.
[0:14:49.0] CM: Yeah, it is great. I mean I just mentioned coral. I have a memory of the coral of Manuk and I think particularly at Gunung Api. I remember being and it was a long time ago is that I remember being really impressed with it. It seemed to be really like it was coral upon coral upon coral, decades and decades of growth. Would you agree with that or have I just got some romantic memory of it?
[0:15:15.4] SM: I think you’re being a little bit romantic. The corals throughout the Banda Sea I mean it’s good but it is not, you know I am not going to sit here and tell you it is the best coral you’ll ever see, when you’re just minutes around minutes — you are a couple of days away from Raja Ampat Park, trying there. So I am not going to tell you it is the most fantastic coral but there is a little quality corals to be had.
[0:15:36.3] CM: Yeah, let’s say maybe some of the best coral but it certainly got charisma, how about that?
[0:15:40.5] SM: Oh yes, definitely.
[0:15:44.1] CM: So once we have survived you know the sea, the poisonous sea snakes and the still active volcano, is the next place on the boat we go, is that a little bit more calm.
[0:15:54.5] SM: Normally heading south we’ve head from there down to a place called the Nil Desperandum, which is despair of nothing it means literally.
[0:16:02.5] CM: Despair of nothing.
[0:16:03.6] SM: The Nil Desperandum, yeah. So it is bit of an odd name and I have no idea where they got it from. It is not very Indonesian that’s for sure. Nil Desperandum is a coral atoll. It doesn’t really break the surface. It is all except at low tide and you have to be a bit careful around there. One of the Liveaboards ran aground there a couple of years ago and you are a long way from anywhere if you got aground on and those islands.
Nil Desperandum has got nowhere to anchor. It drops at very, very steep cliffs. We used to go there for again, hammerheads and early morning dive and late afternoon dive in particular otherwise not particularly inspiring. I mean it is nice, don’t get me wrong and it is typically very clean clear water out there in the middle of the Banda Sea. Not much sand around so that is always nice as well.
So it is good for schooling fish and it is good for hammerheads and it is very remote. But if the wind is blowing, you are very, very exposed. I mean there is literally nothing between you and the north coast of Australia. It’s got a long way to come but that wind then can kick up some windy seas as it comes in.
[0:17:05.6] CM: Yeah, so that is conveniently, essentially a stopping point to break up the journey before carrying on, right?
[0:17:12.8] SM: Yeah it is getting around basically at miles south of Manuk and it is certainly worth diving, don’t get me wrong although a little bit north of there actually, I had forgotten there is another island just a little bit of north of there, which is known for hammerheads. It is called, [inaudible]. That was really only came into its own after I stopped doing regular trips through there. So I actually have not dived there myself but my friends tell me that it’s got a couple of really good spots. Secret spots, which are obviously no longer secret.
[0:17:41.0] CM: Awesome, so after Nil Desperandum, where would the boat head to next? So you must be getting quite near the end of the journey at this point.
[0:17:49.3] SM: Well, you are very much at a T-junction at Nil Desperandum. You would either carry on south and west through, I forgotten the islands towards Melmerby or you can go southeast down into [inaudible], which is the islands of Tanimbar. So it really depends where you want to end up as you where you go from there.
[0:18:08.0] CM: Melmerby would kind of be this sort of default place that boats would head to right though if they were leaving Ambon and doing a crossing?
[0:18:16.0] SM: Yes, very much so. That’s where people are looking to go and these days but as there is more and more boats doing these kinds of trips there is also a nice reason for other boats, the more experience boats should we say are looking for a different ways to do the trip and cover the highlight without having to follow the crowds, as it were.
[0:18:37.0] CM: Yes, no I was about to say to you I mean the forgotten islands if that becomes part of the Banda itinerary that’s pretty great because there’s entire trips that are just based around the forgotten islands, right?
[0:18:50.6] SM: Yes, I mean once you come down after Nil Desperandum, the next island is called Damar, which is also an active volcano, which is southwest of those there is a couple of islands called Tubang Islands, which means the flying islands for some reason and that’s got some beautiful walls and very nice coral and there is also an atoll called [inaudible] as well. So that is where we tend to go to and that I would very much consider to be in the forgotten islands. So yes, so next stop is forgotten islands and you’re right, there is some beautiful spots going on the areas.
[0:19:24.9] CM: But typically if you did a liveaboard that was only in the forgotten islands that is still like a week’s worth of diving there, right? I’ve never been but I’ve just seen it come up as an itinerary.
[0:19:36.1] SM: Yes, sure. You go by the Alor or you’d come up from Kupang, which is in Timor and you go along those islands basically consider it a small group, small islands that link Alor with Tanimbar over there, which is in the far southeast of the country. Tanimbar is the last stop for if you head down around the corner of path to where it end up in Australia. So yes, there is islands all the way. There is some really nice diving along there the island to dive and there is just some lovely drop offs. And beautiful walls, some good fish, a decent coral, nice sponges and typically reasonably good visibility as well.
[0:20:15.7] CM: Oh okay. So yeah is there particular site you yourself would choose to try and head to for the last dive to make it memorable or do you not really have that much choice?
[0:20:24.8] SM: There isn’t a great deal of choice. I mean the more you do these kinds of trips, the more you find obviously. I particularly enjoy we called it Grouper Arch, which is on the north side of the tiny little island called Nata, which is one of the last stops before you head over when you are into Alor and Grouper Arch is beautiful. That is around 16 meters, lovely arch, there is amazing sponges hanging down. Usually a lot of soldier fish and these big eyes hanging out as the like to in the dark spaces.
So like Grouper Arch, other people have probably got other names for it but yeah that is a really nice dive as well. So there’s plenty to be seen and done in any of these islands. So there is many, many ways to skin this cat, as they say.
[0:21:09.2] CM: Yes, I mean from what we’ve just been discussing and obviously you’ve done this trip and the variations of it many times and I have done it three times over the last 10 years and now you say every time I’ve been on the boat it is always been different even though it is nominally the same route, there seems to be quite a few variations you have chosen from, which is great. I guess people obviously you can’t skip the Banda Islands and you can’t skip Manuk, but I think besides that people are kind of fairly happy to go with it.
[0:21:40.9] SM: Yeah they tend to be the bottlenecks and you know you have to remember now there is a lot more liveaboards during these trips than you were last in the area. You know that number is grown to quite large levels. So there is quite a few going through that area these days. So the bottleneck tends to be — well, tends to be Manuk occasionally that is the really difficult one because it really is not a very big place and everybody knows where they want to go and see the hammerheads and they all want that spot of 6:30 in the morning to get the best chance to see the hammerhead with their guests. That can get into a bit of a mess, should we say.
[0:22:17.3] CM: So what I was saying in the beginning about yeah the Banda Sea being empty , that’s kind of gone for a bird as well then.
[0:22:23.4] SM: Yeah, I am afraid so mate. I mean we were very lucky to see it when we saw it but there is so little time to go to this area now and there is so many boats wanting to do the trips, can be a little difficult but you know if you are on a good boats and if there are other good boats around and they will be talking to each other, they will be trying to make sure that everybody gets the kind of experience that pay like to have which is as private in the water as you can make it.
[0:22:47.7] CM: Yes, well given the situation, which we won’t talk about, it could be the varies in chances of some quite dives in the Banda Sea in the future. Let’s just hope we can both get back there soon. Simon thank you so much for talking to me about this.
[0:23:02.6] SM: It’s always a pleasure, Chris, always a pleasure.
[0:23:04.6] CM: Thanks very much mate. I hope we get to go diving again soon.
[0:23:07.4] SM: Yeah, I look forward to that.
[0:23:08.5] CM: All right cheers.
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